By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There have been musicals before now that explored the effects of bi-polar disorder, of bullying, of cultural imperialism and racism, of homophobia, of domestic abuse. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is still controversial; it was written in 1945.
But there has never been a musical like Corey Paquette’s Children of God. It has the fierce spirit, the theatrical audacity, and the guts to set about telling the horrific, shaming story of Canada’s residential schools that way. Which could be a test case for the territorial rights of the musical theatre.
Children of God, which premiered last year in Vancouver, doesn’t find its drama in arguing that residential schools were a terrible idea. What sane human being — theatre-goer or not — would argue the contrary? No, it’s all about opening a window to a horrifying, long-secret world, designed by an official policy of cultural genocide, and ruled by the mighty double-power of church and state.
It’s live theatre: it’s populated by real Indigenous actors playing Indigenous characters. Long-silent characters with pasts and voices, characters for you to believe and invest in, hope for, share with, as they reveal, in song, the ordinary thoughts and memories and dreams targeted by an official policy of extermination. In a way, what breaks your heart is how modest and unexceptional they are (and Payette’s pop-ish music is good for that): the feel on soil under bare feet, the sound of your own language, the taste of food, the longing for home “where people will know me.”
In the Urban Ink production that premiered in Vancouver last year, the looming sky, which hovers over the stage and obliterates the horizon, is suffused by an apocalyptic red glow at times, as if the earth itself were on the point of eruption. Characters enter and vanish mysteriously like memories, through a tear in the clouds. The design is by Marshall McMahen, and it’s striking.
Children of God takes us to a prison camp — for children. The inmates wear identical uniforms, with identical haircuts. On command they line up, they kneel. They are beaten for minor infractions, starved, tortured with solitary confinement and hosing, encouraged to rat out their fellow inmates. Their communication with each other is restricted to a foreign language; their communication with the outside world is cut off entirely. Escape attempts are frequent, and ruthlessly punished.
The authorities are terrifying clerics: the sadistic Father Christopher (David Keeley), a predatory hypocrite, and his somewhat less enthusiastic nun sidekick Sister Bernadette (Sarah Carlé).Their racist mandate is to beat the Indian out of the child. And their lexicon is heavily weighted to prayer, discipline, enforcement, “suitable punishment,” methods that are “effective” against the “savages” and the “filth” of their “devil’s language.”
Not only do we see the kids, and the astonishing resilience they demonstrate when they play together, but we see the damages in their grown-up selves. In the counterpoint of scenes, 20 years apart, which focus on Tom (Dillon Chiblow) and his older sister Julia (Cheyenne Scott), the multi-generational tragedy of loss unfolds.
Chiblow, who like Scott has big musical theatre pipes, captures the vivid double-sided portrait. The Tom who’s yanked from his parents and sent to the residential school, is a big, overgrown, sweet, exuberant, trusting kid. The Tom of middle years is an angry, divorced, underachiever estranged from his own kids and recently on the wagon. He’s back on the reserve living with his mother Rita (Sandy Scofield); they are fractious roommates.
When Tom runs into an old schoolmate Wilson (Raes Calvert) at a job interview, and sees a man whose “success” is based on living with a white swagger, the terrible past comes flooding back onto the stage. At the heart of Tom’s memory vault is his sister.
Scott, a tiny but commanding figure onstage, is lovely as the spirited serial runaway eroded by every kind of abuse. Tommy and Julia share one of those classic musical theatre songs of yearning, the tuneful The Closest Thing To Home, which has a kind of wistful Miss Saigon vibe about it.
And as Rita, the mother turned away from the school gate by the authorities in an indelible image of enforcement, Scofield turns in a an unsparingly harsh, grief-stricken performance.
Payette, who’s the composer/lyricist as well as the playwright and director, knows his musical theatre. Flavoured by Indigenous drumming and played by an unusual onstage quartet (guitar, keys, cello, viola), his score is laced with hints of every kind of musical, from Sondheim to Les Miz. The music doesn’t up the emotional ante (given the powerful subject matter, what music could?); in a way it contains it. It frames the unthinkable by addressing the stakes for the characters in a sharable way we recognize from opera and musicals.
Is all of the musical successful? I’d say no. As one example, notwithstanding the work of the fine actor David Keeley, after what we see of Father Christopher’s cruelty and blatant hypocrisy, it’s difficult to be much drawn by his inner conflict scene. Sarah Carlé, a knockout performer, really rips into an exploration of betrayal in Their Spirits Are Broken (Sister Bernadette’s own spirit is chastened by revelation). Prisoners of the system they may be, but the dissatisfactions of the enforcers, who sing God Only Knows beside their prisoners, aren’t exactly top priority for the audience.
Cavils aside, Children of God is an original insight into the importance of this moment of enlightenment in our shared history, difficult as it is. As Tom lays it out near the end, “what do we do now?”
“You have guilt; we have sorrow…” he sings. What now? The offence and the tragedy are so huge that reconciliation might seem out of reach. And it’s the particular (and timely) bravery of this piece of theatre that the aggrieved mother leads the way. I won’t explain exactly how. But the ending is of the theatre, of Indigenous culture, and of our shared world, simultaneously. Once experienced, never forgotten.
Children of God
Theatre: Urban Ink Productions at the Citadel
Created and directed by: Corey Payette
Starring: Cheyenne Scott, Sandy Scofield, Michelle Bardach, Raes Calvert, Sarah Carlé, Dillan Chiblow, David Keeley, Aaron M. Wells, Kaitlyn Yott
Running: through March 24
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com